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Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series about our recent trip to southeastern Oregon and northwestern Nevada. If this write-up inspires you to visit the Santa Rosa Mountains, PLEASE make sure that you read the last few paragraphs, as they contain some important notes of caution.
Although we weren't ready for the alarm to be going off as early as it did on Saturday morning, we responded to it with the inevitable enthusiasm that comes in anticipation of exploring a new place. Having spent many evenings pouring over maps and Google Maps satellite images, we knew our trip into the Santa Rosa Mountains would be special. However, it should be noted that no amount of high-tech scouting can fully prepare you for either the reality or the beauty of a place.
The Santa Rosa Mountains in Humboldt County, Nevada absolutely have to seen first hand to be appreciated. From the moment they first came into view in the early evening of 13 June 2014, Shawneen and I were instantly captivated by the allure of this rugged range. In shape and substrate, they are unlike the neighboring ranges just north of the Oregon border. They are taller and more suggestive of the Rocky Mountains than any range in southeastern Oregon. Even from a distance, it's apparent that there are significant stands of trees in the higher elevation sub-basins. We knew these stands existed from the satellite images we'd looked at, thus we left home excited to learn what species occupy these verdant pockets during the breeding season. We would not be disappointed.
The day started with a search for a decent cup of coffee. At 5:30AM, towns out in the high desert have limited options, so we settled for a tolerable cup of McDonald's finest. As we made our way north out of town we noticed a string of wetlands off the side of the highway that had some egrets and White-faced Ibis, so we bailed off the highway at the first exit and started looking for access to the streamside corridor. We quickly found a modest little ditch with water and some cattail edge. There were both Great and Snowy Egrets, plus about eight pairs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the modest cattail marsh, which was small enough that it would fit in a typical suburban backyard. We quickly racked up a bunch of new county birds, then began working our way back out to U.S. Hwy 95.
As we drove north on Hwy 95, we remembered having seen a Buteo nest chock full of ready-to-fledge youngsters as we sped by in fading light the night before. Based on the height and size of the nest, we had presumed it was a Ferruginous Hawk nest. We easily refound the massive stick nest, which was in small, mostly-dead Russian olive tree about 100 yards off the road. Sure enough, the were four gawky Ferruginous Hawk nestlings that appeared to be at least as large as the adults. We got out of the truck and almost immediately had suspicious adults circling overhead. We took a few photos of both the adults and the nestlings, which were sort of long-necked, long-legged and bug-eyed. After a minute or so, we left them to carry out their activities in peace.
A few miles farther north we peeled off on Hwy 290, which ends 19 miles to the north at Paradise Valley. There are only about 100 permanent residents in Paradise Valley, but there are many other part-timers who spend weekends or summers in this quiet little burg. It must be a stark and forbidding place during the winter months, but at this time of year it seems aptly named. There are number of antiquated derelict buildings in town, including the three-part "Micca House" right at the turnoff to start up Hinkey Road towards the Santa Rosa Mountains. Across the street at this same intersection is a bridge over Cottonwood Creek and large stand of cottonwoods and poplars, which had numerous roosting vultures and hawks when we arrived shortly after 8:30AM. We had roughly 45 vultures, seven Swainson's Hawks, and three Red-tailed Hawks right around town.
Turning north at the intersection in the photo above puts you onto Hinkey Road, which heads directly north out of town. After a few miles we noticed a small stock pond off the west side of the road. As we drove past, a couple of Wilson's Phalaropes flushed up, so we stopped. Bodies of water are scarce in these parts, so almost any pond or stream is worth checking for waterbirds. This spot was quite busy with a surprising brood of Green-winged Teal, two broods of Gadwall, at least eight Wilson's Phalaropes and four Yellow-headed Blackbirds. It's hard to imagine that Green-winged Teal are more than an uncommon breeder in this part of Nevada.
Continuing north along Hinkey Road, we were soon following along Indian Creek, which originates high on the south face of the Santa Rosas. A short ways later, we crossed into the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which at this elevation is still a treeless forest. We made several brief stops, which invariably yielded Lazuli Buntings, Red-winged or Brewer's Blackbirds, plus a few family groups of "Plumbeous" Bushtits and the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat. Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks were also quite common, particularly along the lower, flatter stretches of Hinkey Road.
Once we crossed the national forest boundary, the grade steepened and the canyon narrowed. After a mile or so, we came to the first good stand of aspens. We parked the truck and walked up the road for about a quarter of a mile. It was a bit disconcerting to flush a flock of nearly 100 European Starlings–mostly hatch-year birds–out of big tangle along the creek. That was counter-balanced by a feeding flock of about a dozen Common Nighthawks working the skies overhead. They often came gliding by at fairly close range, which allowed for reasonable attempts at flight shots. Their constant changes of direction and flight speed make it a challenge to get shots that are in perfect focus.
The suite of birds that we were encountering at these stops remained relatively constant until we got up to some hard switchbacks at about 6000'. Rather suddenly, the brush fields along the side of the road showed signs of having enjoyed more moisture than the rather parched looking sagebrush and grasses that we had been passing through at lower elevations. There was obvious and colorful new growth on most of the vegetation and the ringing of Brewer's Sparrow songs in our ears was a welcomed change.
At lower elevations we had struggled to find singing desert sparrows of any species, even Brewer's, which can be ubiquitous in the high desert during wetter years. At our first stop in the switchbacks, we could easily hear about ten territorial singers. There was also a smattering of Green-tailed Towhees along this section of the road.
As we gained elevation, seemingly every curve in the road tempted us to take scenic photos of the landscape. These alternated between spectacular vistas looking back down into the valley below and admiring the mosaic of wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs leading upslope to yet another stunning outcrop. Between the two of us, we took dozens of photos in addition to trying to mentally cache images that simply can't be captured in pixels.
About a mile or so below the Hinkey Summit, we came upon a broad sub-basin that was feeding the upper reaches of Indian Creek. Nestled back up in the trees is well-kept, recently built private cabin. We birded this spot mostly from the road and by working uphill on the upslope side of the property. Here is where we heard our first of many Swainson's Thrushes. We were able to eventually get some brief looks at the thrush, which mostly stayed buried in the brush. It was of the expected olive-backed type that breeds across most of Canada and in the Intermountain West.
While Shawneen was still down below along the road, I heard the song of a Fox Sparrow. Anxious to see what type it was, I started pishing. What popped into view was visually startling. It appeared to be a Fox Sparrow, but it had a mostly white head. It remained in view, both singing and calling for long stretches, so I was able to get a good set of photos of what proved to be a partially leucistic "Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow.
This site also produced our first fleeting glimpses of a "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha). We also had a couple of Black-chinned Hummingbirds chasing each other about over this strip of riparia.
This was one of the birdiest spots on the mountain. We spent nearly an hour here, recording 23 species. In addition to species already mentioned, we had two additional Fox Sparrows, our first Ruby-crowned Kinglet, four MacGillivray's Warblers, two Pine Siskins and a low flyby White-throated Swift.
Aside from being the highest point (7850') along the road, Hinkey Summit offers little excitement. It is quite exposed and wind-blown, so even the shrubs were pretty stunted. There is 4-H cabin right near the summit, which overlooks a brushy hillside and dense trough of aspens just over the north side of the summit. We got buzzed by another White-throated Swift and heard two more Fox Sparrows singing down the hill.
A little farther down the road I heard one drum sequence of a sapsucker. I initially assumed that it had to be a Red-naped based on location. However, after getting an eBird checkbox when I keyed in Red-naped, I punched in Red-breasted, which, surprisingly, did not generate a "confirm" checkbox. Based on the sound of the drum pattern, I think the bird was a Red-naped. I've reviewed the eBird database looking for nearby reports of these two species and there are no records of Red-breasted in the Santa Rosas, but there are two credible reports of Red-naped from this mountain range. Why Red-breasted wouldn't generate a checkbox is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Given the dominance of aspens, a common host tree for Red-naped Sapsucker nests, I would far more expect to find that species here.
About a half mile down the north slope from the summit we found a really nice little boggy area that looked perfect for "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha). Almost immediately, we heard two singing. Using the video function on our iPhones, we got some decent recordings of their unique song. These birds seem to have a strong preference for high-elevation boggy meadows. This site is very much like a place on Winter Ridge in Lake County, Oregon, where Shawneen and I found "Mountain" White-crowneds a few years back.
The other interesting find at this site was two Fox Sparrows that looked and sounded like "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrows, which are not known from the Santa Rosa Range. They were bathing in a small streamlet and staying partially obscured by overhanging vegetation. However, they were quite gray-headed and had large-looking bills. More importantly, they gave very sharp, metallic calls that were consistent with "Thick-billed". The Santa Rosas are about 100 miles east of the easternmost sites where "Thick-billeds" have proven to be somewhat regular, so this question begs further investigation. Continuing downslope, we heard a couple more birds at other spots that offered similar call notes.
As Hinkey Road (now FR-84) winds down the north-facing slope from the summit area to Lye Creek Campground it passes through an extended stand of aspens. We didn't have a lot of bird variety along this stretch, but we were fascinated by the thousands of moths that were flushing from the aspen sapling understory as we moved along.
Time flies when you are having fun and by the time we reached Lye Creek Campground it was 5PM. We were only halfway through the 30-plus mile loop from Paradise Valley to Hwy 95 to the west of the Santa Rosas. With no idea of what sort of road conditions lay ahead, we decided to pick up the pace. At this point, I was still hoping to find a nice stand of mountain mahogany that was close enough to the road for quick exploration. About two miles beyond Lye Creek C.G., we found a spot with a pretty good stand about a 300-400 meters off the road. Problem was, it was above the road up an extremely steep slope.
Figuring this would be our last and only chance to look for hoped for Virginia's Warbler and "Gray-headed" Dark-eyed Junco, we decided to give it a go. The first half of the 70 degree slope passed by us pretty quickly, but then the lungs and leg muscles started to beg for mercy. Given where we live–just a few hundred feet above sea level–our cardiovascular and respiratory systems are hardly adapted for this sort of effort at nearly 7000' elevation. We wisely made a couple of strategic rest stops. After a few more minutes of picking our way around, over, and through boulders, smaller rocks and waist-deep vegetation, we got up to the trees. It was now overcast and birds had mostly gone silent. We found a couple of Green-tailed Towhees and heard another Swainson's Thrush in the draw far below, but didn't see or hear much else.
For the most part, this ended our birding day. It was time to make our way out of the mountains before dark, or the onset of a potential rain shower that loomed on the horizon. The next few paragraphs are must-read for anyone who is considering a visit to this area.
In the days before we left Portland, I reached out to Martin Meyers, who is the secretary of the Nevada Bird Records Committee and one of the state's most active birders. I asked Martin about the roads in the area and if they were passable to any sort of vehicle. I have two-wheel drive Ford Range pickup with good tires and decent ground clearance capable of handling rutted roads, rocky roadbeds and a bouncy ride. In his response, Martin cautioned that if we were to get caught up in the mountains in heavy rain–often the case when summer thunderstorms hit these mountains–coming down the roads out of the Santa Rosas can be "treacherous, I mean really treacherous." He further advised that if we did get caught up there we should opt to stay over and camp out until the rains quit and the roads dry out.
Throughout the day I had pondered this advice and kept occasionally casting an eye to western skies looking for hints of an advancing thunderhead. Late in the afternoon we did start to see some cloud buildup, which to some degree hastened our departure. That said, I was having a hard time imagining that the road up the south aspect could become "treacherous," even if it did rain. Sure, there were a few tight switchbacks and some slightly steep sections, but the roadbed was heavily graveled and it didn't seem to have much of the dust that turns to grease when it gets wet. I suspect it would take quite a bit of rain to make this portion of the route truly dangerous, but I would not want to chance it.
We did not choose to retrace our route back to Paradise Valley along the well-maintained route that we'd already traveled. Instead, we continued north and then west from Lye Creek Campground with the intent of shortening our route back to Oregon by coming out on the northwestern most departure path. Less than two miles beyond the campground, the road conditions quickly started to deteriorate. Even though we were still on FR-84, the major Forest Service road through the area, there was grass up to 15" in height growing between the tire tracks. This section (from Lye Creek C.G. to Windy Gap) crosses a broad plateau, so dealing with slope isn't an an issue, but the roadbed is much rockier, and there are some modest washed out sections. You need to pick your way along slowly (we averaged less than 15 mph) to avoid beating your rig to death or shredding tires. As we passed through this section, we encountered just one vehicle coming from the other direction. In retrospect, we questioned his sanity, or if he knew what he was in for when he chose his approach route. He was driving a big heavy-duty pickup and towing a 25-foot fifth-wheel trailer. He was traveling about half the speed that we were maintaining.
The road remained moderately bumpy and rocky over the next few miles, but did not further deteriorate. As we approached Windy Gap–the top of the climb if you are coming in from the west–the road finally started to resemble those that we'd been on for most of the day. As we rounded the last curve before the start of the descent from Windy Gap, both Shawneen and I had bit of a HOLY $%&#@ moment when we saw the route down the hill. The drop-off from this point to the bottom of the canyon seems almost vertical and is many hundreds of feet. The road is essentially a one-lane gravel and dirt affair with hairpin turns about every 300 hundred yards as the road snakes down the first mile or so of what amounts to a cliff face. There are no pullouts, no guard rails, no place to effectively turn around much more than a sub-compact, and no place to stop for a stiff drink if you need to calm your nerves. If you don't like heights, this is a road you should avoid even in dry conditions. From the bottom of the hill looking back up, it's hard to imagine that there could be a road that leads to the top.
This was surely the section of the road that Martin Meyers had warned us about. I wouldn't even think about trying to go down this road in wet conditions. Just yesterday he shared the story of a mechanic friend of his from Truckee, who got caught up in a rainstorm while hunting up in the Santa Rosas. His friend came down the hill with his four-wheel drive Jeep shifted into compound low gear and chains on all four tires. Even then, he wasn't sure he was going to make it down the hill safely. Even with my automatic transmission shifted into low gear, I had to ride the brakes more than I like to keep my speed down. Otherwise, we had no trouble making our way down the hill. From a birding perspective, there is not much to see along the northern half of the loop and the lousy section of road across the plateau seems to be the most likely and inconvenient place to do damage to your vehicle.
I've traveled the northern part of this loop for the one and only time. We were more than entertained spending an entire day between Paradise Valley and Lye Creek Campground and we didn't spend any time at all at the campground, where another birder saw a Ruffed Grouse on the same day we were there. With some side hikes up to higher elevations and more stops coming up the hill, there are easily two full days of exploring to be done along this route. Any future trip will see me going in and coming out via the southerly route through Paradise Valley. It seems that most visitors to the Santa Rosas come in from the south and don't venture much beyond Lye Creek Campground after reaching the summit, hence this section of the road sees the most maintenance effort.
We made it down to Hwy 95 at about 7:15 and turned north towards Oregon. We planned to bird in Malheur County the next day, so we decided to make the drive to Jordan Valley and stay there for the night. With the hour loss due to time change (a small sliver of far eastern Oregon is in the Mountain Time Zone) we reached Jordan Valley at about 10:30 local time. We briefly had cell service in McDermitt, Nevada, which allowed us to call ahead to the Old Basque Inn and arrange for a room and after hours access. More about that in the final segment of this three-part series
To say that Humboldt County, Nevada is underbirded would be an understatement. Most of the county's population (roughly 17,000) lives near its southern border, in and around Winnemucca–Humboldt's only incorporated city! Across most of county's 9658 square miles, population density can be measured in tenths of a person per square mile. Add in those who live in or near Winnemucca and that number still comes up shy of two persons per square mile. If jackrabbits, deer, or Horned Larks had voting rights, attention to human concerns would be non-existent.
While eBird may not be a perfect barometer of birding activity for a county, it certainly sheds some light. If one pulls up the all-time "Top 100" eBirders for Humboldt County, Nevada and sorts by the number of checklists submitted, Terry Rich–with 573 as of this date–has far surpassed the number of checklists (417) submitted by all other observers. This all-time tally, a mere 990 checklists, may be fewer than some intensely birded and heavily-populated counties generate each month. Year to date, no fewer than 50 observers have submitted at least 100 checklists for Marin County, California. Further, if you assume that many of the other lists in the Humboldt County total are duplicates shared among parties birding together, Terry Rich's total is more likely double the output of all the rest of us.
Shawneen Finnegan and I have spent a grand total of about three days in the county over the last five years and we are credited with 36 and 35 checklist respectively (she must have forgotten to share one). These are all shared lists. We rank third and fourth all-time for the number of eBird checklists from Humboldt County and we live 500 miles away in Portland, Oregon. For a quick comparison, Tillamook County on Oregon's north coast has a population about 25,000. In 2014 alone–and the year is only half over– the number of eBird checklist submitted from the county nearly matches the all-time total for Humboldt County, Nevada.
In part, this paucity of data and, more importantly, the absence of exploration and discovery that generates it, was a driving force in our choice to visit northern Nevada. We have come to enjoy most those birding experiences that take us to places rarely visited by other birders. Fifty years from now, or perhaps sooner, these places may no longer look like they do today. Vegetation and avifaunal distributions will have certainly changed a half century from now and perhaps be altered on a scale that renders this landscape somewhat unrecognizable when compared to what we find today. We are motivated to grab this snapshot and experience these landscapes as they have been in recent memory. Further, we find joy in pursuing answers to questions that may have been contemplated, but never investigated by other birders, or professional ornithologists.
Today, unexplored hinterlands are not as mysterious as they were before the invention of many modern technologies. Using Google Maps, DeLorme Atlases, and various other satellite images and data found online, we can quite accurately target and to some degree scout areas that we want to explore. We have birding contacts all over the country, some of whom, amazingly enough, have actually birded in Humboldt County, Nevada. We can also surf through the mapped sightings on eBird to determine if target species have been reported in the area we've chosen to visit. We did all of these things in advance of our trip to Humboldt County and decided that the place we most wanted to see was the Santa Rosa Mountains. But first we have to get there.
Our adventure started shortly after midnight on Friday 13 June. Over the next seventeen-plus hours, we made our way all the way from Portland to the Nevada border with many stops as we went. Our first birding was south of Prineville about 3:30AM. We made two more pre-sunrise stops to get Common Poorwill and listen to the dawn chorus in the high desert just before hitting U.S. Hwy 20. Only a couple more stops slowed us down as we drove Hwy 20 to Burns, Oregon, where we stopped for breakfast. After filling our tanks with food and coffee and the gas tank on our pickup, we headed south from Burns towards Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the obligatory stop to look for vagrants at the refuge headquarters. Given the date–about a week after the prime window for eastern vagrants–we expected it to be dead. It was.
We made a brief foray through the Malheur Field Station, where at least one Northern Mockingbird has taken up residence this season. It took awhile to track it down, but as we drove the network of roads through the station we found two large family groups of adult and partially-grown California Quail. The youngsters were positively adorable, especially when they took flight. Among birds, few species have the capacity to fly before being nearly full grown. Fuzzball baby quail that are perhaps one-eighth the size of an adult taking flight is always visually arresting.
We continued south through the Blitzen and then Catlow Valleys only occasionally stopping to enjoy birds that aren't easily encountered elsewhere in Oregon. Like Malheur headquarters, the oasis in Fields, Oregon is not a site one drives by without checking for something out of the ordinary. Further, in this corner of the world there is no better hamburger or milkshake than those served up by the Fields Cafe. We ate first, denying ourselves the pleasure of a milkshake. Being a bit lactose intolerant, I am careful about where I choose to enjoy dairy products. The bacon cheeseburgers were fabulous.
The Fields oasis was no more productive than Malheur headquarters, but we did hear an odd warbler song that we ultimately concluded was probably a Townsend's Warbler. We did not see the Gray Catbird that had been seen there earlier in the day. Nevada was now in our cross hairs, as we were only 25 miles from Denio, Nevada, which straddles the stateline. We were anxious to see what we might find beyond the bounds of our home state, so we proceeded south without interruption.
We finally crossed over the Oregon/Nevada line at Denio at approximately 5:40PM on Friday 13 June. We stopped almost immediately to record our first Nevada birds of 2014. That stop netted eleven species. Driving south through the first several miles of Hwy 140 south of Denio might have had some questioning the decision to come all this way to go birding, as we saw almost no birds, but we were undaunted. A few more miles south, a distant patch of trees came into view. EUREKA! a migrant trap.
We stopped just outside the fence of the Quinn River Maintenance Station to have a look around. There was a nice mix of deciduous trees, plus a sturdy hedge of tall lilacs along the fenceline. Almost the first bird I saw was a Northern Mockingbird. A few miles to north in Oregon, this would be a "checkbox" bird on an eBird checklist, thus we were surprised when it didn't trigger any filter boxes at this site. A few minutes later we heard and then saw a Lesser Goldfinch, which seemed even more out of place. It didn't trigger a checkbox either. Hmmm! Nevada IS really different. Our fourteen-species bonanza included two Gray Flycatchers, a Swainson's Hawk, the now ubiquitous Eurasian Collared-Dove, plus the aforementioned mockingbird and goldfinch. We pressed on.
We took a short detour down a side road to check another row of trees that bordered a ranch. It was a big spread with several large alfalfa fields that were being watered by center-pivot irrigation systems. We found a bunch birds along one weedy fence row, including, two somewhat surprising Chipping Sparrows.
It was now after 7PM and going on about 36 hours since either Shawneen or I had been asleep in a real bed. We were fading, as was the sun, which was now dropping behind the ridgeline to the west. Aside from a quick stop to take our first photos of the Santa Rosa Mountains, we forged on to the junction with U.S. Hwy 95 and then turned south for last stretch into Winnemucca, where we would get a motel room for the night. We were in bed and long gone shortly after checking in.
After a day dedicated to a small section of Morrow County, our plan for Sunday was to do some exploring and go to places where others had found interesting birds on Saturday. At the count-down meeting Saturday evening, project coordinator Doug Robinson mentioned that there were a few hotspot squares that had not been covered. I volunteered for our group to take three squares that were not far from where we were staying near Boardman. I'm not sure my compatriots were thrilled about my altruism, especially after they saw the mostly plowed landscapes within our squares.
For the third morning in a row we were up and out the door by 5AM. Jim Danzenbaker, who had spent the Saturday covering the tree farm and surrounding areas with Ann Nightingale and Jenna Curtis, was back with Shaween, me, and our dog Rozi for this day's adventure and the trip home. As we headed south on Bombing Range Rd., Jim suggested that we stop at a spot where his group had heard Grasshopper Sparrows singing the day before. He sort of remembered where it was but did not have the exact mileage. Along a dead-straight road lined with identical fence posts and utility poles, good landmarks are few. We hopped out of the car where Jim thought the sparrows had been heard, but no luck. I offered to drive ahead and park, then work back towards them as they walked south along the shoulder of the road. Surely one of us would hear the sparrows singing.
Leaving them behind, I drove about a half mile. Just as I slowed to park I noticed what at first glance appeared to be fox coming out of the brush just ahead of me and crossing the road over to my side. Once I got a good look at it, I realized that it was something that I'd never seen...a coyote pup. It was maybe half the size of our dog, who weighs 40 pounds. It was a bit gangly, with proportionally long legs, but otherwise it looked like a miniature adult coyote. It disappeared into the brush and was not seen again and I never saw any adults or siblings, but they were surely nearby. At this point, my concerns turned practical. How would an adult female coyote with pups respond to seeing our dog coming down the road? Not wanting to find out, I jumped back in the truck and backed up several hundred yards before parking. I met up with Jim and Shawneen, told them what I saw and suggested we not get too close with Rozi. We stopped there, listened a bit and quickly heard a Grasshopper Sparrow sing multiple times. The Bombing Range is surely loaded with this species.
We continued south to the big swinging curve (the only curve) on Bombing Range Rd. On the east side of the road in the middle of the curve there is old quarry with a sandstone embankment. It is riddled with holes of various sizes, some big enough for roosting and nesting Barn Owls. The day before, Jim, Ann, and Jenna had found adult owls sitting in the openings of two different holes and young owlets farther back in the larger of the two holes. We stopped and Jim quickly pointed out an adult sitting in the opening of one of the holes.
After enjoying the owl for a few minutes, we moved on to find our hotspot squares, which were in the agricultural lands to the south of the bombing range and along Juniper Canyon. The best of the three was along Immigrant Lane, with runs for several miles along the south side bombing range. It is accessed by taking Little Juniper Lane west off of Bombing Range Road and then turning north on Wells Spring Road, which makes a 90 degree turn to the west and becomes Immigrant Lane. The lands outside the bombing range are almost entirely converted to wheat fields, so the expanse of untilled grassland within this defunct military property attract lots of grassland breeders. Western Meadowlarks are exceptionally common, with most stops producing at least 4-6 territorial singers. Vesper, Lark, and Grasshopper Sparrows also use this habitat. We found two family groups of Loggerhead Shrikes hunting along the fence lines and were afforded great looks at brownish, stubby-tailed juveniles.
One of our other two hotspot squares was inaccessible, a common issue when randomly selected squares are dropped across a vast expanse of mostly private property. We were able to get no closer than about a half a mile from the border of that square. Our next square, which abutted Juniper Canyon, was barely accessible. We were able to drive in one road that was just outside the square boundary. We did a couple quick point counts and headed south to further explore the forest lands along Morrow County's southern border.
Driving down Lexington Grange Road, we flushed flock after flock of Horned Larks, seeing perhaps 200 total. We also came upon a pair of Long-billed Curlews that were right next to the road. We stopped in to check on the nesting Swainson's Hawks at the intersection of Hwy 207 and Lexington Grange Road. One adult was on the nest, while another circled and scolded us from above. A Dusky Flycatcher was in the yard with the hawk nest.
We made a quick stop in Lexington to see if the Veery found the day before was still singing by the bridge on B St., but we did not hear it. We did find a male Black-chinned Hummingbird that returned often to the same perch on a utility wire along Arcade St. between B and C Streets.
Upon reaching Lexington, we were in need of a serious meal, so we drove on to Heppner (nine miles) and found just one restaurant open on Sunday morning. A hearty dose of protein and we were on our way south to the Umatilla National Forest. We made a few stops but we were on a mission to look for Dusky Grouse where a couple had been seen the previous day. The target area was along NF-2115, which winds up to a plateau at about 5500' elevation. We spent about a half hour criss-crossing the area where the grouse had been seen, then followed the drainage along the east side of the plateau down stream for nearly a half mile and then walked back through the meadow at the top on the way back to the car. We encountered no grouse, but had a really nice mix of birds in the heavy timber along the drainage.
By mid-afternoon the temperatures had climbed into the mid-70's even on the high plateau, which meant if would be a warm ride home once we got down slope. As we made our way back to the main road, there was a momentary burst of excitement when Shawneen spotted a rather large looking grayish-brown grouse sitting at the edge of a spur road that we passed. We backed up and looked at the bird for a few hopeful seconds until it became apparent that it was a grayer than we are used to Ruffed Grouse instead of our hoped-for Dusky Grouse.
From the extreme southeast corner of Morrow County we figured it would take nearly five hours to make the drive back to Battle Ground to drop off Jim and then home. All of us were running on fumes after getting up around 4AM three days in a row. The prospect of getting home really late and then having to work Monday was not appealing. Jim jumped in the cab of the pickup with me, while Shawneen stretched out in the back with Rozi. She and Rozi slumbered for a good chunk of the way back to I-84. Instead of going north from Lexington, we continued west-northwest along the Willow Creek drainage via Hwy 74. We barely slowed down between Lexington and the Heppner Junction on I-84 just east of Arlington. We stopped for burgers in The Dalles, but otherwise dead-headed it to Jim's place, arriving about 8PM.
There is a certain melancholy that always greets me when I return to the hustle and bustle and heavy traffic of the Portland Metro area after a long weekend in Oregon's hinterlands, where the population is sparse and travel is rarely impacted by other vehicles. I sometimes daydream about living in one of the various outlying areas that we visit, but the reality of finding work and trying to become part of the fabric of a place where people are from but rarely move to is daunting and ultimately deterring. And yet, it is a fantasy that I continue to indulge.
For those unfamiliar with the Oregon 2020 project, it is an ongoing set of surveys aimed at creating a statewide benchmark for the distribution and abundance of Oregon's birds by the year 2020. It is a joint effort between professional ornithologists and birders. Among the components of this effort are county-wide "blitzes" that are conducted during the summer breeding season and during mid-winter when birds are somewhat settled on their wintering grounds.
Although we weren't thrilled to hear the cell phone alarm start quacking at 4AM for the second day in a row, Shawneen and I were excited by the prospects of poking around the mostly unknown landscapes of extreme southern Morrow County. We made coffee, threw together some food and were on the road for the hour-plus drive to our "hotspot squares" by 4:30. To learn more about hotspot squares and how they are selected, click on this link: What are Hotspot Squares?
Birders find it near impossible to drive non-stop across country that they've never visited. Any postage stamp wetland or patch of habitat that is unlike the dominant vegetation cover provides more than sufficient reason to stop for an impromptu exploration. Thankfully, we had just birded the route along Bombing Range Rd. and Hwy 207 all the way to Lexington the day before, so we found it somewhat easy to mostly blast through the first 25 miles.
We couldn't pass on the opportunity to re-check some spots around Lexington that had been plenty birdy the previous afternoon, when it was hot and windy. It was calm and cool this morning, so we expected more activity than we found. Aside from spending about ten minutes at the bridge crossing over Willow Creek at the bottom of B St., we didn't linger at any of the spots we checked.
While standing at the bridge crossing listening to a tepid morning chorus, Shawneen half heard a Catharus thrush song that I missed completely. "Is that a Swainson's Thrush?" "No," she said, answering her own question. Then the bird sang again. This time we both heard it well and immediately recognized it to be the song of a Veery. The bird continued to vocalize no more than 20 feet from where we stood. It alternated between the fairly loud veer call notes and the somewhat ventriloquial fluting downward spiraling song that stands out as exceptional even among the extraordinary songs sung by other species in its genus. If you haven't heard this song before, I strongly encourage you to visit our species page for Veery and then click on the button next to "listen" in the middle of the page.
Continuing southeast to Heppner, than south through Ruggs and Hardman, we made just a couple more stops, as we did not want too much of the morning to get away before we reached our assigned area. As mentioned in the prior installment, we enjoyed a Gray Flycatcher just above Ruggs and then found both Eastern Kingbirds and our lone Yellow-breasted Chat of the weekend along McKinney Creek about midway between Ruggs and Hardman.
We were now well south of where our exploring had ended the previous day and we knew that we would soon reach the forests that we were anxious to probe. We were utterly unprepared for how sudden the transition occurs. Highway 207 drops quickly off the treeless plateau just south of Hardman and within a half mile or so you are in the bottom of the canyon surrounded by trees. The road winds along to the southeast following the course of Rock Creek and then turns south into more extensive forest that extends beyond the breadth of the canyon.
We made a quick pit stop at Anson Wright Park, where a hand-painted sign across the wooden framework of two aluminum garbage cans reads, "NO ANIMAL PARTS." We weren't sure if this meant chicken bones from the family picnic, or the ribcage of the trophy Rocky Mountain elk that a hunter just packed out of the national forest. Being fresh out of animal parts, we felt no temptation to break the park rules. After a quick check of our various navigational aids, we realized that our first hotspot square–Rankin Lane–was just a couple miles farther down the road.
We made our first of four stops along Rankin Lane at 6:45AM. We hoped to be able to completely cross the one-mile wide square using this road, but after about a half mile the road dead-ended into private property. This square was dominated by semi-open mostly second-growth ponderosa pine forest. Trees were widely spaced and the ground cover was sparse, mostly grasses. A spring-fed streamlet running through the bottom end of the draw supported a few isolated clumps of aspens with riparian understory, but otherwise the birdlife consisted of species adapted to dry slope conditions. As they were at nearly every stop in pine dominant woodlands, Chipping Sparrows were the most abundant species at this site. We also had both Mountain and Western Bluebirds, multiple Cassin's Finches, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, and Dusky Flycatcher, which would be our most frequently encountered flycatcher throughout the day. We also had a couple of Western Tanagers and our only warbler was MacGillivray's. We were a bit surprised to hear and then see a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows, as it seemed too dry. After surveying the surroundings, we noticed that there was a wet spring-fed area in the draw below us that had just enough brushy edge to support this montane wetland specialist.
Additional stops along Rankin Lane gradually added another half dozen expected species to our list for this hotspot square. We had nice views of a male White-breasted Nuthatch that was of the presumed local subspecies S. c. tenuissima, which is part of the interior "Nelsoni Group" found throughout the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin and much of Mexico. These birds are slightly darker above when compared to the Pacific Coast subspecies S. c. aculeata. Their bills are generally described as being longer and more slender than the stout-billed nominate eastern subspecies S. c. carolinensis and longer than the equally slender-billed Pacific coastal bird, though I don't always notice this difference between the western forms. The three sub-groupings have distinctly different vocalizations, which seems likely to result in a three-way split of White-breasted Nuthatch, with two of the forms occurring in Oregon. Nathan Pieplow has produced a nice three-part summary that discusses the different vocalization types: http://earbirding.com/blog/archives/1054 We did not hear this bird call.
Our next hotspot square was along Sunflower Flat Rd. We backtracked north a short distance on Hwy 207 and turned east on Sunflower Flat Rd. We made a quick stop right at the intersection (look for Katie's Corner sign on the tree), where there is some dense riparia. We had Yellow and MacGillivray's Warblers, plus our first of two back-to-back stops with Red-naped Sapsuckers. A seven-minute point yielded 16 species. We did another random point count in front of a nice natural wood house on the south side of the road about a mile or so off of Hwy 207. They had bird feeders, a hummingbird feeder and lots of creekside vegetation across the front of the yard. Twenty-three species included another Red-naped Sapsucker, three species of swallows, three species of flycatchers, which included two Duskies, our first Willow of the year, and a Say's Phoebe that appeared to be going to a nest behind the house. At least a dozen Cassin's Finches were coming to the feeders. We saw one hummer blast through the yard, but couldn't identify it. Black-chinned and Calliope are the default hummers around these parts. We also had two fly-through Vaux's Swifts.
We made our next stop as we reached the edge of the Sunflower Flat Rd. square. There was a dense stand of firs and Douglas-fir upslope from us and an open grassy area about 50 yards from the road on the downslope side of the road. Multiple Hammond's Flycatchers were singing upslope along with our first of several Ruby-crowned Kinglets of the day. It too was singing, but the song was not like what I'm used to hearing during spring migration in the Willamette Valley (more on that later).
In the first minute out of the car, we heard the readily recognizable sharp call note of a Black-backed Woodpecker, which sounded like it was right above us. About the time we got onto it, a Pileated Woodpecker blew through, no more than 20 feet overhead. When I shut the truck door after going back to retrieve my camera, a Wild Turkey unexpectedly gobbled down the hill. This stop was surprisingly productive. More than half of the species we had–9 of 17–were new for the day, including a singing Fox Sparrow that would be the only one we had during the weekend.
Our next stop was at a non-descript little pull-out that appears as "Govt. Spur" on the map. It amounts to maybe 100 feet of dirt road that quickly evaporates. Barely recognizable ruts appear to have been subsumed into the grassy ground cover long ago. Shawneen and I agreed that it looked like a great place to camp and be almost guaranteed of hearing some owls. We walked up the slope through a dense stand of timber for maybe a hundred yards. At the top of the hill, we popped out of the trees into a fairly expansive ridge top meadow. A Western Meadowlark sounded off and we had a pair of Western Bluebirds there as well, but little else. Back down the slope we heard both species of kinglets, two more Hammond's Flycatchers, and our second Cassin's Vireo of the day.
We conducted a couple more point counts before leaving this square, with the only addition to the day list coming in the form of an American Kestrel. Otherwise, our checklists were a consistent mix of thespecies that we had found at prior stops. From this square, it was about an eight-mile drive to our next hotspot square along Kinzua Rd. It took us some time and ultimately realizing that we had crossed briefly into Grant County, to figure out that we had driven past Kinzua Rd about two miles back to the north. In the interim, we made a couple good stops (all in Morrow County).
At this point, I should cover the importance of having multiple ways to geo-reference your location at hand when you venture this far from centers of human population. Cell phone service and 3G networks are generally not to be found. Throughout the day, we used the combination of the maps provided by the project, an Oregon DeLorme atlas (published in the late 1990s), a GPS unit borrowed from Jim Danzenbaker, and our cell phones, which have built in GPS. The township scale (6 miles X 6 miles) project maps need some work when it comes to hierarchy and separating roads from streams. We found them at best difficult to use. The resolution and hierarchy of the project's hotspot scale maps (one mile X one mile squares) were fine. Being unfamiliar with the intricacies of the borrowed GPS, we could not figure out how to convert the lat/long readings from the traditional degrees, minutes, and seconds output to a decimal output that jived with the border coordinates on the hotspot maps. Thankfully, both Shawneen and I can do math in our heads, which allowed us to do some fairly accurate mental conversions. Despite having not cell or 3G service, we were able to use the offline checklist function of BirdLog (cell phone eBird app) to capture decimal lat/long readings. We would use the GPS and the DeLorme, along with the township scale map to get ourselves close and then use BirdLog for the fine detail as we neared the edges of our hotspot squares. But I digress.
During the time after we passed the Kinzua Rd. turnoff, we explored a couple spur roads and did some productive point counts. The best of these were two along FR 2122. About a quarter of a mile off of Sunflower Rd. FR2122 passes through an area where there is dense brush on both sides of the road. We had our second Williamson's Sapsucker of the morning at this stop, along with both Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warblers here. Two more Dusky Flycatchers added to the nearly twenty that we'd already had throughout the morning.
The most interesting find here was an Orange-crowned Warbler, the song of which I didn't immediately recognize. It started out with a rising trill suggestive of the start of an Orange-crowned song, or the ending of a Nashville Warbler song, but instead of ending with the down-slurred trill that finishes the song of a O. c. lutescens Orange-crowned (the subspecies that I am familiar with from western Oregon), the song ended with a series of three chup, chup, chup notes. Shawneen recognized as an Orange-crowned song before I did. I became immediately interested in what subspecies occurs here, as this is not well covered by Birds of Oregon: A General Reference, or other works on the birds of Oregon.
Despite many attempts to get a good look and photographs of the bird, it stayed up in the fir canopy and typically out of sight, or in poor light when it occasionally popped into the open. Based on what I saw, it appeared to be of the subspecies O. c. orestera, which is the breeding population centered in the Rocky Mountains. I've seen many strongly hooded, gray-headed birds with bright yellow throats and underparts during fall migration in southeastern Oregon. I've always presumed to be of this form, but I had not previously encountered birds of this appearance in Oregon during he breeding season. This bird showed a strongly hooded pattern on the head and bright yellow throat and upper breast that clearly contrasted with the duskier, grayer hood, something not shown by the adult males of the coastal population found in and to the west of the Oregon Cascades. I captured one poor quality photo that shows the distinctive head and throat pattern characteristic of O. c. orestera.
After spending more time than we wanted trying to track down the Orange-crowned Warbler, we continued a little farther on FR-2122 and made another productive stop. Here, a cooperative Cassin's Vireo was actively feeding and singing from a couple trees right next to the road. It was a bit more colorful than some of the dull breeding season birds we see and it was in decent light for photos.
Shortly after coming off this road and continuing south on Sunflower Flat Rd., we realized that Kinzua Rd. was back to the north. We found it on the second pass and turned west, still at least seven miles from our next square and it was nearly noon. Despite feeling like we were behind schedule, we continued to drop in random point counts at spots that looked interesting. After several miles we came to spot where there is a water tank with a drip pipe right next to the road. This section of Kinzua Rd. is up slope from any of the minor creeks flowing through the area, so this drip and the wet area surrounding the water tank was attracting a lot bird activity. We spent nearly half an hour here.
One of the things that had captured our attention all morning was the interesting songs thate we were hearing from Ruby-crowned Kinglets. To this point our encounters had involved heard-only birds that were a long way off. Here, there were two kinglets low in the trees right around the water tank, so I finally got a look at one. It was clearly different from the smaller, darker green birds that we see during winter and as migrants in western Oregon. The head was much paler and grayer and it a broad pale supraloral area, which gave it a face pattern much more similar to Hutton's Vireo. It's bill seemed a bit longer as well. Finally, the area between the wingbars was paler and not as glossy or semi-iridescent as it often appears on the wintering birds in western Oregon. Shawneen eventually got on the bird as well and agreed that it certainly looked different from the Ruby-crowned Kinglets that we normally see.
Our best bird of the day, if indeed it was what it sounded like, was a singing Hermit Warbler that we heard sing at least a dozen times. The song of a Hermit Warbler is one that hear hundreds of times in most years, thus their typical songs and local variations are familiar. This bird sang a couple of times before it even registered that, "Wait a minute, we are well to the east of the range of Hermit Warbler. Am I sure that I am not mis-hearing some other species?" In Oregon, the only species that sing songs that are similar to Hermit Warbler are Townsend's and Black-throated Gray. This song lacked the speed, high buzzy quality, and urgency of a Black-throated Gray Warbler, which would be nearly as unexpected here as Hermit. It was too crisp and patterned for a Townsend's, which to my ear sounds as thought the singer is bit inebriated compared to its close relatives. Finally, the song consistently ended with the classic hard two-note phrase that followed a slightly faster series of zee notes. Once Shawneen heard the bird, she too thought it sounded like a very typical Hermit song. Had I heard this song in the Oregon Coast Range, it wouldn't have even turned my head...Hermit Warbler. We tried to find the bird, which was high in the tree tops. After hearing the song a bunch of times it quit singing and we were out of luck.
At about 1PM, we finally got close to the Kinzua Rd. square. However, as we turned up the road that appeared to the best way into and through the square, we encountered a locked gate, outfitted with the usual assortment of "don't even think about it" warnings. We looked at the map and quickly determined that it would take us at least 15-20 minutes via a circuitous route to get around to another potential entry point, with a good chance that we would find another similarly adorned boundary gate.
We did a couple of underwhelming point counts (six species at each one) just outside the square and called it good. We needed to move on and work our way to our last hotspot square. The afternoon meet-up and countdown were slated for 4:30PM and we had every bit of an hour drive back to Boardman, which meant we'd need to finish up no later than 3:30. Unfortunately, we had not realized how close we had been to our last square earlier in the day, thus we ended up retracing a big chunk of our earlier route to reach the final square. Thankfully, much of the route back was along Hwy 207–the only paved road in the area.
After about 20 minutes, we arrived at the edge of the last square, which we reached just shy of 2:3oPM. We conducted two quick point counts, picking up yet another Williamson's Sapsucker, our fourth of the day. Among the six woodpecker species that we found, only Hairy Woodpecker was encountered more times than Williamson's Sapsucker. On the road up to the square we had passed a decent-sized marshy pond along FR-20, so we made a point of stopping to check it on the way back down the hill. This was easily the largest body of water that we saw all day and it rewarded us with a female Mallard and two ducklings, plus a handful of Red-winged Blackbirds.
It was after 3:30PM when we got back to Hwy 207, with fully 60 miles of winding road between us and Boardman. Shawneen climbed into the bed of the pickup where she could stretch out under the canopy and catch a few winks while I put the pedal to the metal. The long straight stretch along Bombing Range Rd. provided a chance to make up time and we were back at the River Lodge and Grill shortly after 4:30PM. Along McKinney Creek south of Ruggs, we'd blown by Wayne Weber, another counter who was pulled over looking at something off the side of the road, so we knew we wouldn't be the last ones back at the meeting. These blitzes are really casual affairs and designed to be as fun as possible for the participants, so we had no worries about rigid time schedules.
Earlier in the day, Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale had texted us about some of their best finds, which included a singing Least Flycatcher in the tree farm and the fledged Northern Saw-whet Owlet roosting in plain view about 50 feet away from the nest box that we'd visited the night before. The countdown revealed that 13 participants had seen and heard a total of 138 species. Just after Doug Robinson announced the final tally, someone pointed out two Great Egrets flying down the river...139!
After the countdown we hung around on the lawn sipping beers and then Ann offered to led any of us who were interested over to the tree farm, where we first tracked down the Least Flycatcher (Doug returned and found at least four singing males in the farm two days later) and then we went over to the owl nest box to see the fledged owlet as the sun dropped quickly towards the western horizon.
Morrow County lies on the Columbia Plateau just west and south of where the Columbia River turns north and winds across eastern Washington. It is sparsely populated with about 12,000 residents, most of whom live within a few miles of the Columbia River. The lands in the northern quarter of the county are dominated by center-pivot agriculture, an abandoned naval bombing range, and a massive farm of fast-growing hybrid poplars that are grown and harvested for a variety of uses by the wood products industry.
Driving south, away from ready access to a stable water supply, there is a broad band of open country that is sparsely populated and devoted almost entirely to dryland wheat farming. It is a mostly treeless expanse of rolling hills that are somewhat uniform in appearance. Some fields are green with waving knee-deep wheat, while many other parcels are plowed yet unplanted. Bare dirt is rarely out of sight. Untilled fragments are typically blanketed by non-native cheat grass, with occasional patches of native and non-native grasses and rare remnant stands of tall sagebrush.
Continuing south at about the midpoint in the county, you drop into the comparatively lush Willow Creek valley, which cuts diagonally from southeast to northwest across the county's midsection. It supports the only Morrow County towns away from the immediacy of the Columbia River.
Heppner is by far the largest of the three main towns along Willow Creek, with approximately 1300 residents. Morrow's county seat is famous for a flash flood that occurred on June 14 1903. That flood nearly destroyed the town and took the lives of roughly a quarter of its residents–at least 238 perished. An understated kiosk just as you hit the main drag into town describes the flood in mostly matter of fact language. Heppner strikes me, as most eastern Oregon towns do, as a common sense sort of place where hard work and civic pride are expected. Tolerance for hyperbole or anything that screams "look at me," seems to be negligible. The downstream towns of Lexington (pop. 239) and Ione (pop. 330) are more modest outposts, but these charming little farming communities do have gas, groceries, and other amenities that you may need as you pass through. As we walked about birding the fringes of Lexington, no one seemed too curious about our presence. A few folks smiled and said hello, but mostly they went about their business.
Climbing up out of the Willow Creek basin south of Heppner, Hwy 207–listed as Heppner-Spray Rd. on many maps–passes through a grassland ecosystem the evokes notions of what this corner of Oregon might have looked like before the plow. The footprint of agricultural that has marked the last 30 miles is mostly gone. Instead, there are vast expanses of native bunch grasses, with wetter slopes and plateaus splashed with the color of lupines and indian paintbrush. Horned Larks still easily outnumber all other birds combined, but Western Meadowlarks and lesser numbers of Vesper Sparrows are more expected in this habitat.
After a few miles of crossing the plateau, Hwy 207 drops into the Rhea Creek drainage and then bears south at the split with Hwy 206 in the hamlet of Ruggs. As we came down the grade just above Ruggs, we passed through a nice patch of tall sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata), which caused me to say aloud, "this looks like a good spot for Gray Flycatcher." We stopped, got out of the truck, and the first bird we heard was a Gray Flycatcher, our only one of the weekend. These days, Ruggs is little more than a three-way intersection, a grain elevator, and an upscale private hunting ranch. From there, Hwy 207 snakes along McKinney Creek as it gradually climbs back up onto the plateau and passes through Hardman a few miles south. Along McKinney Creek we saw multiple Eastern Kingbirds, several Lazuli Buntings, and Morning Doves appeared on a fenceline or utility wire every mile or so. When we stopped to look at the first Eastern Kingbird, a Yellow-breasted Chat conveniently began singing about 100 yards upstream.
Hardman is aptly named, as it clearly would have taken a hard man or woman to survive here when the town was first settled nearly 150 years ago. Unlike most of the county's towns, it sits exposed to incessant winds on top of the plateau. At 3600' elevation, the winter windchill factors must range from wholly unpleasant to downright intolerable. Even when bathed in the glorious early June sunshine, it is a stark looking place, with no apparent local economy and no recently constructed permanent structures. The population of Hardman, now designated as a "ghost town," peaked at nearly 200 residents in the 1930s, but has declined steadily since. Weather-beaten wood houses, barns, and out buildings, many of which appear to be over 100 years old, are sprinkled all through what is left. It appears that most of the current inhabitants–the 1990 census listed 20–live in single and double-wide mobile homes that were likely deposited here because rent or land prices were cheap. Broken-down, rusted-out vehicles far outnumber those that appear to be in working order. The era when this was still a viable settlement must seem long ago and far away to the few surviving former and current residents who are old enough to recall the best days of Hardman.
Shortly south of Hardman is one of the most sudden changes in landscape that I've seen. Dropping off the grassy, treeless plateau, Hwy 207 descends abruptly into the heavily-wooded Rock Creek drainage and within about two miles the road is winding through virtually unbroken conifer forest. Unlike the rest of the county, the extreme southern tier has trees, with forests dominated by ponderosa pine. Mixed in are various true firs, Douglas-fir, and even some western larch. Streamside areas feature at times lush riparia, aspens and cottonwoods. There are lots of grassy openings and semi-wet meadows. Some are carpeted in wildflowers, while many of the drier sites have all the earmarks of a place where one expects to find a Great Gray Owl coming out to feed at dusk.
Southern Morrow County reaches into western edge of the Blue Mountains, with the highest points above 5000 feet. We had asked for montane habitats when queried about our assignment preferences. We couldn't have been happier with the landscape that we encountered when we reached the area that included our hotspot squares. In the next installment I will share tales of us wallowing in our good fortune.
For those unfamiliar with the Oregon 2020 project, it is a citizen science endeavor being coordinated by professional ornithologists with help from partnering birders. The aim is to create a benchmark assessment of the distribution and abundance of Oregon's birds between now and the year 2020. Among the components of this effort are county-wide "blitzes" that are conducted during the summer breeding season and during the months when birds are somewhat settled on their wintering grounds. This will be the first of four articles chronicling a long and enjoyable weekend of exploring Morrow County, Oregon. The next installment will offer an introduction to the Morrow County and its habitats.
On Friday 30 May, Shawneen Finnegan, Jim Danzenbaker and I spent an enjoyable and relaxing day making our way east to Boardman, Oregon, where we would convene with the other Morrow County blitz participants. We picked up Jim at his house in Battle Ground at 5:30AM, then headed east on I-84 through the scenic Columbia Gorge. A quick stop to check the mouth of Hood River was our only detour on our way to the drier habitats east of the Cascades divide. On a whim, I turned off I-84 at Rowena (exit 76) in hopes finding some fun birding in the narrow band of oak woodlands along the section of Old Hwy 30 between Rowena and Mosier (exit 69). In all my years of traveling through the Gorge, I had somehow never noticed the scenic overlook perched high above the river at Rowena Crest. After a couple quick stops in the woods to get our year Ash-throated Flycatchers, we wound our way up to the crest to enjoy a spectacular panorama.
We continued east, passing through the The Dalles and leaving a treed landscape in the rear view mirror. Our first targeted birding stop was Deschutes River State Park, which can offer a good mix of migrant birds and potential vagrants in late May-early June. Before going into the park, we checked the towering rimrock just west of the river mouth. As the repeated sound-0ffs of Canyon Wrens rang from the cliff face, we gleaned a handful of White-throated Swifts from the blizzard of Cliff Swallows coursing along the precipice of the rimrock. We heard, but never saw one of the resident Peregrine Falcons.
We ended up spending nearly three hours poking around the campground and day use area at Deschutes River State Park. Multiple pairs of Bullock's Orioles, which can counted on here May-July, entertained us with their constant chatter and chasing one another about. A nice mix of migrants included some Warbling Vireos, a couple of Wilson's Warblers, a Townsend's Warbler and multiple Western Tanagers. Locally-breeding Yellow Warblers sang occasionally. After we'd been in the park for well over an hour, we began hearing the repeated songs of a warbler that was clearly an out-of-towner. We finally tracked down the source–a young male American Redstart. Jim found a migrant Swainson's Thrush that appeared to be of the olive-backed variety, but Shawneen and I never saw that. A lingering male Common Goldeneye, probably the same one that Shawneen and I had seen here three weeks earlier, was a surprise. They don't breed anywhere nearby.
As early afternoon set in, both the wind speeds and temperatures began climbing, which generally translates to slow passerine birding. We called ahead to Ann Nightingale, who we were scheduled to meet in Boardman and coordinated a late lunch at the C and D Drive-in to be followed by a visit to a nearby 26,000-acre poplar farm to see soon-to-fledge Northern Saw-whet Owlets. Yes, you read that right, Northern Saw-whet Owls are nesting in a poplar tree farm. A few years ago, a biologist at the tree farm contacted Northern Saw-whet Owl researchers to report on a remarkably high number of breeding pairs using small raptor nest boxes that were first put up at the farm 1998. As part of an integrated pest control program, the boxes were placed in hopes of attracting nesting owls and American Kestrels. She had found pairs of Northern Saw-whet Owls, which typically breed in densely wooded areas comprised of some, if not mostly conifers, occupied upwards of 75% of the 100+ nest boxes mounted within the monoculture of the massive tree farm. The trees on the farm are fast-growing hybrid poplars that are all essentially clones of one another. Plots are harvested after about 12 years. During this relatively short life span, the trees have grow to roughly 50 feet in height and 8-9 inches in diameter at the base. Subsequent monitoring of nesting owls has revealed that in some years upwards of 75 percent of the farm's 120 nest boxes are occupied by breeding pairs of Northern Saw-whet Owls. This year, there are only a few active nests.
Ann Nightingale lives in Victoria, British Columbia and regular readers of this journal may recognize her name from an earlier article about Northern Saw-whet Owls (http://www.birdfellow.com/journal/2013/02/25/pretty_in_pink_the_northern_saw_whet_owl_s_flashy_secret). Ann is active with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, which is one of several banding stations affiliated with Project Owlnet–a collaborative monitoring effort by owl-banding stations from all across North America. Several times each year she makes the trip from Victoria to Boardman to band and collect data on the owls using the Boardman poplar farm. After lunch, Ann took us out to the farm (not open to the public) to visit a Saw-whet nest that is being monitored. She pulled out one of the banded nestlings and let us take some quick photos before returning it to the box and its siblings. Later that evening, the first of the five owlets fledged. It was found the next morning roosting on a low branch just a few tree rows away from the nest box.
After the owl adventure, we headed south on Bombing Range Rd., which runs for many miles along the eastern edge of the now mothballed Naval Bombing Range. Shawneen and I were hoping to scout the area we would be covering the next day, but too many birding stops along the way resulted in us running out of time. We had get back to Boardman for the evening planning meeting. We made it as far south of Lexington, where we got hung up looking for migrants in town. We found some heavily-vegetated yards and a wooded section of Willow Creek at the southeast corner of town that was quite birdy.
In the early evening we met up with the rest of the blitzers for a short strategy meeting and dinner at the River Lodge and Grill, which sits right along the Columbia River in Boardman. As we dined, several hundred California and Ring-billed Gulls, along with a few Caspian and Forster's Terns could be seen flying up and down the river. On the way back to our lodging for the night, we made a brief stop at a modest wetland, jokingly dubbed the "stupid little marsh" by Ann. It is in an unlikely place, buried in the middle of the sprawling tree farm. As the last birdable light waned, we enjoyed a cacophany of Yellow-headed Blackbird songs and agitated Black-necked Stilt chatter, along with the occasional winnowing of a Wilson's Snipe. All the while a Common Nighthawk fed low over a small pond just a few yards away. Eventually, the mosquitos drove us back to our cars. Our day had started with the alarm going off at 4AM and we planned to be up and on the road by 4:30AM Saturday, so we called it a night shortly after dark.